On Point: Two hours on a bus

On Point: Two hours on a bus

Michele Ellson
Alameda Point tour, June 23, 2012

On Saturday, nearly four dozen people boarded a bus – environmentalists, engineers, and the occasional journalist – for a two-hour tour highlighting the Navy’s latest efforts to pull poisons out of the ground and water at and around Alameda Point.

The Navy is required by federal law to perform public outreach on its cleanup efforts, and the annual tour is one way the team in charge of making sure the Point is safe for human habitation, workers and recreation chose to fulfill that duty, according to Derek Robinson, the trim, affable head of the team managing cleanup efforts there.

The Point looms large in the minds of residents and local politicians whose most fervent hope is to see this third of the Island transformed from an expanse of cracked pavement and rotting hangars into a vibrant new segment of the community with homes, shops, office buildings and parks. But for the Navy, which shuttered bases all over the country in the 1990s including this one, the Point is one of their biggest cleanup jobs, with a cost that has so far exceeded a half billion dollars.

“We would have had to do that either way to make it safe to redevelop,” said Curtis Moss, one of eight project managers overseeing cleanup of the Point, of an effort that entails boiling chlorinated solvents out of a patch of contaminated ground using a specially laid power line capable of carrying 1.5 million kilowatt hours of power, or 1,500 megawatt hours. (One megawatt is roughly enough to power 1,000 homes.)

The tour highlighted four cleanup sites on the former Naval Air Station – a pair of landfills, a former aircraft testing and repair facility and a pier area outside Seaplane Lagoon, whose waters bore solvents and other chemicals delivered via storm drains – along with some of the whiz-bang science behind the work.

The solvent-boiling project is taking place at a site in the heart of the Point known as Operable Unit 2B, the former aircraft testing and repair facility, and it’s the third on-base pilot intended to test the viability of the technique so close to a body of water like the San Francisco Bay. Over the din of the blower for the massive cooling and condensing unit attached to the mass of flesh-colored hoses carrying the boiled and soon-to-be-vaporized solvents, Moss explained the project’s goal of pulling 90 percent of the toxics out of the 24-acre patch by the end of September.

Next up was a trip to the piers and the lagoon, from which the Navy dredged 5,256 cubic yards of contaminated sediment and removed, treated and returned 11 million gallons of water to the Bay. Robinson handed out neat squares of the canvas mesh “geotubes” used to filter water from sediment as glittering, cracked hills of it dry across the road. That project is expected to wrap in August.

The landfill sites contain traces of radium, so when we visited them, no one was allowed off the bus. Outside are intensifying patches of weeds and scrub, and what one Point project manager billed one of California’s most successful least tern colonies, the tiny birds coasting above a nesting area the state Department of Fish and Game has marked with a grid of evenly spaced bricks. Plans for the site include clinics and a columbarium for the Department of Veterans Affairs, a refuge for the terns and recreation space.

The Navy’s cleanup plan for the second of the Point’s landfills, which is still going through final approvals, has been controversial. City leaders and other Point watchers had wanted the Navy to excavate and remove radium-contaminated soil, a proposal the Navy had deemed too costly. They plan to excavate some of the soil and to cover the rest with clean soil, delivered via barge instead of by trucks, along with a barrier intended to keep squirrels and other rodents from burrowing through.

“You always have to balance what one party wants with what another party wants,” Lord said of the struggle that has ensued over cleanup and development proposals for the area.

On the Point’s principal landfill site, which once included the base’s runways, skeet range and aircraft parts storage and maintenance and is envisioned as a future open park space with a Bay Trail connection, the Navy is injecting chemicals into the ground to treat the water there; engineers are designing a cleanup plan for the soil that they plan to put in motion at the end of 2013.

As the bus inched across the sun-baked Point, George Humphreys offered a running narrative to his seatmate in the row behind me. Humphreys once chaired the citizen group charged with overseeing the Navy’s cleanup efforts here, and he has criticized their cleanup efforts as being too limited.

“They’re doing the minimum amount that they can,” Humphreys, a retired nuclear and environmental engineer, said as we stopped between landfills.

In a 2010 presentation, Robinson and others said the Navy had cleaned up 40 percent of the base and was working to clean up another 35 percent, and that it was working to assess contamination at another 25 percent of the base. On Saturday, Robinson said assessment of toxics at the base was complete, though he allowed that the Navy is still “fine-tuning” that work.

Humphrey said the Navy had originally estimated Point cleanup costs at $100 million and the city, $500 million – figures he said the Navy is still coming to terms with. The original cleanup plan for Seaplane Lagoon, he said, was $15 million; the final cost was $36 million.

Back on the bus, some tour participants questioned the Navy’s engineers about whether the soil cover will hold through a catastrophic earthquake or predicted sea level rises that could engulf the toxic ground. And one tour participant asked how “hot” the site is, radiologically speaking.

“I’d go camping on it with my kids. But there are rules,” said Jacques Lord, one of the Navy’s Point project managers, as a tech from the company working with the Navy on the cleanup waves a Geiger counter over the bus’s tires to ensure we aren’t tracking radium outside the fence barring entry to the landfill sites.

As the bus eased back to its City Hall West starting point, Robinson, a civilian Navy employee with both a chemical and civil engineering background, talked to another tour participant about the cleanup budget for the Point. He’s got $35 million for cleanup efforts this year, an amount that will drop to $12 million in 2013.

“The Department of Defense was asked to cut its budget 20 percent across the board. And this is one of the areas they were happy to cut,” Robinson said, as an intermittent stream of Porsches wove in and out of orange cones in the middle distance.

The Navy plans to hand off much of the rest of the Point to the city by the end of 2012, and Robinson said he thinks it’ll “probably” finish cleaning up the former Naval base by 2016, though groundwater monitoring there will continue for years to come.

Participants lingered at the tour’s between-landfills break on the Bay, where they took turns posing for photographs on the crushed concrete riprap that stood between the edge of the Point and the gently lapping waves of the shining, sailboat-studded Bay, downtown San Francisco looming promisingly in the distance against a surprisingly bright blue sky.

“A little breezy,” Robinson remarked to another tour participant. “What a beautiful day, though.”


Donna Eyestone's picture
Submitted by Donna Eyestone on Mon, Jun 25, 2012

This sounds so similar to the tours that are offered at the Nevada Test Site -- where you get on a bus and are told you can't actually get off the bus because it is "too contaminated" but then in the same sentence hear about how good a job they are doing on "cleaning it up" to the same tune as "safe for camping". Of course, no pregnant woman or children under 18 allowed on that tour.

I bike over there at the Point. I don't test my tires (or lungs) after I leave. And how about thost beautiful community gardens over there? Safe to eat the food grown? Or those chickens -- I gave them a few chickens a few years ago when I heard someone had gone on a rampage and killed a bunch of chickens - those chickens provide eggs to the local residents at APC -- are they tested?


Submitted by severeclear on Mon, Jun 25, 2012

Here we learn that Derek Robinson is affable and trim, though no such info of critical importance to Alamedans is provided for Curtis Moss or Jacques Lord, who is referred to reverentially higher in the post before his first name is later revealed, thereby dispelling inference of a statement of divine import. One might surmise that Mr. Humphries, with his inquisitive nature, isn't nearly so charming as the others named. The intermittent stream of Porsches weaving in and out of orange cones in the middle distance certainly lends credibility to Robinson's statements and it's reassuring the reporter chose to note this detail.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Mon, Jun 25, 2012

Hey Donna,

These are good questions. George Humphreys mentioned that a study had been done a decade ago that showed what he termed a "really high" cancer risk for anyone who lived at the Point, pre-cleanup. I'll see if I can find it, and also find out if any other research has or is being done on this, because I'm curious. Any RAB folks out there or other Point watchers who know?

Richard Bangert's picture
Submitted by Richard Bangert on Mon, Jun 25, 2012

The radiological scan of the tour bus tires can be looked at two ways: A sign of extreme danger, or a sign of extreme caution. In the case of Site 2 and also Site 1 - locations of industrial waste disposal - the radiological risk is from radium-226 used in the painting of luminescent dials and markers. The amount of radium as a percentage of the million-plus tons of waste in the ground is minute. But from the standpoint of cleanup regulations, it doesn't matter if it is in a couple of old soup cans with old rags two feet underground. If the amount is slightly higher than normally occurring amounts of radium in the soil, then the entire site is considered radiologically controlled, and therefore strict rules must be followed for anyone entering or leaving.

The berm at Site 2 where the tour bus entered and drove up onto was never used for disposing of anything. It originated as dredge soil that was eventually piled up to create the berm. Nevertheless, the testing of the tires is mandatory. It would be interesting to learn what the reading was. My guess is that it was no greater than the amount of naturally-occurring radium in a granite countertop or a public sidewalk. The Nevada Test Site is not a realistic comparison.

As for pre-cleanup cancer frequency among Point inhabitants, it wouldn't surprise me if it was high, since many of them worked in industrial settings in which cancer-causing substances were constantly being generated - fumes, sandblasting, painting, etc. The only cancer frequency data that I have ever heard about was for the radium dial painters in the 1940s and 50s who used to wet the tips of their paint brushes with their lips and tongues to keep a good tip. There is also the issue of cancer-causing compounds being used in construction materials back in the last century that could also have led to increased cancer risk among inhabitants, such as formaldehyde in plywood, and asbestos in flooring.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Mon, Jun 25, 2012

Thanks, Richard, for providing some clarity around that.

W McIntosh's picture
Submitted by W McIntosh on Wed, Jul 11, 2012

What a dog and pony show the Navy treated us to!!.

Glitz and glamor with coffee, pastries and a group photo. Sadly the meat was missing. The "Project Managers" could answer nearly NO questions not already on the sketchy handouts. I sat at the front of the bus and questioned several Project Managers and found them to have or pretend to have no information they were willing to release.

Questions about fugitive vapors potentially escaping from the ground heating experiment to drive off VOCs went unanswered.

Questions about testing for toxic heavy metals (some of which are radioactive and others are non radioactive toxic decay products, went unanswered.

Questions about the migration of toxic chemicals which sink to deeper levels in the groundwater, the migrate for long distances went unanswered.

Questions about cleanup levels were deflected to, It is Available on;line or in our offices...I have spent tens of hours on the reports websites (California Department of Toxic Substance Control) digging for the actual data and remedial action goals and I can tell you (with a very few exceptions for minor areas of contamination), only the PR lever reports are available. Actual data from the studies is obscured or not posted.

Questions about the "Successful" level of the VOC contamination heating system where they said success was a lever several hundred times the MCL (Maximum Contaminant Lever) allowed in the State of California was met with a fatuous comment that this was not drinking water. The MCL for non drinking water is 5, and they say they are successful at 1000!

Do you want to live or work over a site contaminant 200 times the allowable level and above the Vapor Intrusion Risk levels? The Navy Project manager would NOT address the possibility of impermeable barriers to prevent these VOC vapors from contaminating the surface facilities ( a simple engineering control).

In short, the entire tour fell short, unless you are impressed by a free coffee and bun.

Call me shaken but not stirred!